“Start small.” This phrase sums up one of the most common philosophies of world-building for RPGs. You don’t create a whole country all at once, for example — you begin by building just the part where the PCs will be starting out.
Not every GM creates their own campaign worlds, however — but we all run games, and before running a game you have to do some prep work. This idea — start small — can be applied equally well to preparing for your next game.
I’m not re-inventing the wheel here: starting small is a pretty basic approach, but I’ve found that it can be easy to forget. When I’m excited about starting up a new game, my head’s so full of ideas that I sometimes lose track of the fact that I have to turn those ideas into a playable campaign, and that’s when stepping back and remembering to start small is most useful to me.
Several years ago, I played in a truly excellent Star Trek event at GenCon. It was so good that I went out and started buying up everything for the line (Last Unicorn Games’ version) — and shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted to run a Trek game. I bought all but a few of the game books, plus the Chronology and the Encyclopedia, and I already had a couple of non-RPG “about Trek” books on my shelf. By the time I realized that to do the game justice I would have to watch a bunch of Next Gen and DS9 episodes, I had two problems: 1) I had so much material on hand that I knew I couldn’t possibly absorb it all, and 2) I was never going to run this game.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was planning to start up a D&D campaign. The seeds that grew into the game were planted a year before we actually started playing, and I was thinking about the game and coming up with details several months before the first session. This one did get off the ground — as the Selgaunt campaign — and it was a lot of fun, but not starting small still caused problems. Instead of not running the game at all, I wound up running a game that moved so slowly that we never saw some of the coolest stuff I had planned — in other words, I overplanned.
I learned a lot from these two experiences, and much of what I learned can be summed up in two words: start small.
For my current game (the Airship Privateers campaign), I’ve been very careful not to overplan — or to absorb so much material that I intimidate myself into not running the game at all! I’m one of those folks who always has something on the mental back burners, so I did toss ideas for this game around for a couple of months before getting down to business — but apart from that, here’s the prep that I did for our kickoff session:
- Outlined my approach to the game (detailed in a previous TT post, “The Bones in the Soup“).
- Built an index of Dungeon adventures.
- Drew two out of three decks of the party’s airship, the Black Swan (and laminated them).
- Created the rest of the crew.
- Picked the first adventure, read it, and tweaked it for the party
- Did some background reading and came up with a metaplot.
- Jotted down some notes on running the session.
I’ll grant that number two is fairly elaborate prep, but it was also built to be useful to other GMs — and it will save me time before every session (and in other campaigns down the line). Notably absent from that list: extensive reading of the various Eberron sourcebooks, detailed plans for future events (that might or might not actually happen), writing my own adventure material and — perhaps most importantly — worrying myself out of being interested in the game!
By outlining how I want to approach the campaign, and thinking a bit about where I want it to go, I’ve laid enough groundwork that it won’t just be a string of unconnected adventures — but not so much that I’ll be disappointed if things don’t go a certain way.
On the purely practical front, starting small means that if the group falls apart, or the players hate the direction that things are headed, I haven’t wasted a whole lot of effort. And all of the time I’ve spent not worrying about things, and not prepping stuff that might not see the light of day, is time I can spend thinking about ways to make the game more fun — and time we can spend actually playing it!
This all came together for me when I read the preface to Robert’s Rules of Writing, by Robert Masello (which may itself be the subject of a future TT post). In it, Robert talks about the problem with reading too many books about writing:
“…by the time you’re done reading them, you’re too demoralized to write your own name.”
Who needs that? Start small, and spend more time having fun!
Most heartily disagree.
Set the framework first and establish where things go in broadstrokes. Then establish homebase and the area around it. Know where your starting point fits into the world. This makes it easier to avoid contradictions etc.
I don’t think that’s totally dissimilar to what I’m saying — maybe I’m not reading your comment correctly.
For the Airships campaign, I’ve got the home base (the ship itself), and a framework that includes the first broad stroke and an idea of where to go from there. So perhaps a bit less of where things are going than it sounds like you’re recommending, but apart from that it seems like we’re on the same page.
Can you expand a bit on your comment, and particularly on the bit about avoiding contradications? 🙂 (And welcome to TT, Alan!)
I’m a terrible GM and I know exactly why… I plan wayyyyy too far in advance. It ends up being National Lampoon’s Vacation. Ok, kids, there’s the Grand Canyon…On to wally world!
I’m a railroader because I want the party to be awed by the cool thing I have on page 96 of my notes, rather than the setup thing I have on page 3. Light hand on the till… Start slowly.
(anon) I’m a terrible GM and I know exactly why… I plan wayyyyy too far in advance.
Since you know what you’re doing wrong, I’m guessing it’s something that you’ve taken steps to work on. Do you have any tips and suggestions on what’s worked for you in terms of getting past this?
Allow the players the freedom to stray a bit from the narrative.
If you’re hustling your players towards that great encounter on page 96, you’re really just railroading. If you have a general IDEA of what you really want, just let them discover it on their own.
(anon) If you’re hustling your players towards that great encounter on page 96, you’re really just railroading. If you have a general IDEA of what you really want, just let them discover it on their own.
Definitely a valid approach to play, and a good way to get around looking too far ahead — thanks! 🙂
I’m also that type of DMs that have always several ideas of campanig projects in mind.
I usually know the main plot of the campaing I want to run, but ,more often than not, it’s hard to figure how to stay in the ground and plan the campaing step by step. “Star Small” it’s a good advice for me. Thanks for sharing your ideas.
PS: Sorry for may bad english
(Q) I usually know the main plot of the campaing I want to run, but ,more often than not, it’s hard to figure how to stay in the ground and plan the campaing step by step. “Star Small” it’s a good advice for me. Thanks for sharing your ideas.
You’re welcome! That’s what TT is for, and I’m glad you found this post useful. 🙂
I will both agree and disagree. On one hand I definitely see your point about overplanning and that is bad, especially if the campaign tanks in just a few sessions. Railroading is probably worse. One thing I’ve found as DM is that you just have to accept that a few of your cool ideas will remain ideas due to party choices if you allow a degree of freedom. For example, I had a nice plot line that involved a romance between an NPC and PC. Of course, the PC wanted nothing to do with the NPC no matter how I tried to spin the tale, and it ultimately ended up in the wastebasket of ideas. I had another plot line where I chose the most aggressive PC face a sub-boss/arch foe for a humilating (but non-lethal) fight and that he would naturally face him again for a come-uppance. Of course, the PC turned a deaf ear to his taunts and walked away peacefully so I had to come up with another angle (had the sub-boss kill the PC’s friend (NPC))
Back to the point! As for planning, I think you have to plan for your players. We have a saying at our table. “Theres steak eaters and burger eaters”. This is dervived from “why make a steak when a burger will do?”. Some players are there ‘lite’- to roll dice and kill bad guys, and some are ‘heavy’- deep plot and char developement. You have to cater to your audience. If your players are predominately ‘heavy’ you might need a fair bit of planning before the game kicks off. Plot holes and incosistentcies will be quickly revealed if planning is lacking. I build on a “province” level- 2 cities with a few major attractions and some outlying towns made up my last game world. The players started in a small town and worked up. If you go through the trouble of constructing a whole world, I would plan to re-use it many times. In fact this adds to the game when players see their previous characters as part of the ‘history’.
(anon) I build on a â€œprovinceâ€ level- 2 cities with a few major attractions and some outlying towns made up my last game world. The players started in a small town and worked up. If you go through the trouble of constructing a whole world, I would plan to re-use it many times. In fact this adds to the game when players see their previous characters as part of the â€˜historyâ€™.
This is a pretty good example of starting small (although I suppose it depends on how detailed your cities were!).
And starting small definitely doesn’t mean that you lose the re-usability aspect — in fact, I find that returning to an old idea (world, etc.) and layering in new elements can be a lot of fun. 🙂